It has been so cold the past week that it was difficult not to think about autumn. However, the weather forecasters have all agreed that this week will be better. We will return to summer temperatures, and then we will all be complaining about the heat.
The spring flowers have all been seen in May and June. Then comes a lull when we don’t seem to find anything new blooming, and then comes August. August is gentian month when most of our native gentians bloom. Anyone who has hiked a mountain trail in this part of the Rocky Mountains knows the blue gentian. It is a deep dark purple blue, and I think it is now called Pneumonthe parryi. However, the great botanists have been busy rearranging and renaming the gentian family lately, so few have the same names I learned years ago, but they are still gentians.
If you want to see gentians, go to South Park in August. Here where the valley floor is 10,000 feet high, they are at their best. For years, this was THE place to go to see fringed gentians, although they are not as abundant as they used to be. A few years ago, someone had the idea that if they put in draining ditches, the meadows would be drier and therefore better for grazing sheep and cattle.
So they dug ditches and drained much of the water away. And with it went the fringed gentians. The western fringed gentian like these high wet meadows and without the moisture, they do not do well. The state decreed the draining be stopped and the ditches filled because too many things were being affected by this big change.
The water level has been restored, and I feel sure the fringed gentians will soon return to their former abundance. Annual plants return quickly if there are enough to form new plants and thereby new seeds. The perennial fringed gentians do grow in the mountains, and I have found them in the Georgia Pass area, but they are usually tucked back under shrubs and other low growth where they are not easy to find.
I have never seen them in masses the way you see the animals. The last time I was in South Park in gentian time, there were still many annual fringed gentians in and along all the road ditches, so I feel sure they will return.
I am especially sensitive about gentians for the last group of fringed gentians in western New York now lies under the concrete of the New York Freeway. Once a flower is extinct, it is gone and cannot be replaced unless a few native plants can be found in some tucked-away spot. Fringed gentians have now just about disappeared from the eastern states.
The bottle gentians have also all but disappeared from the east. However, we still have some in Colorado. We are fortunate to have a large clump of one of the bottled gentians in Elk Meadow Park. This is pneumonanthe bigelovii frequently known as prairie gentian and should receive protection for years to come.
They are not truly prairie plants but grow natively in the outer foothills meadows just as these are doing. They have a cluster of flowers on each stem, which do not expand their petal tips into a flat disc or “bottle” and are not the deep blue of mountain gentians , but are the color of faded flue jeans.
The largest member of the family is the green gentian or monuments plants, which has a huge spike of green flowers, which can be several feet tall, the “monument.” There are a few of these growing in some sandy gravel along the lower end of Echo Lake Road. The smallest gentians in the state are the three or four arctic gentian species that are found above timberline on the alpine tundra. These can only be seen by getting down on your knees, but they do have beautiful little flowers that might warrant that respect.
The true arctic gentian, gentianoides algida, is the last to bloom here from 10,000 feet up. It has white flowers that are often covered by the first snow. The roads and jeep trails to this high country will also soon be closed for snow for they are not plowed in most cases. However, I have seen arctic gentian at Echo Lake and that road is kept open all winter. The high country is especially beautiful in late August and early September when the alum root has turned red. Enjoy it while you can for it will soon be unavailable until next spring.